Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Thomas Paine, 9 June 1801

From Thomas Paine

Paris June 9th 1801
19 prairial year 9

Dear Sir

Your very friendly letter by Mr. Dawson gave me the real sensation of happy satisfaction, and what served to increase it was that he brought it to me himself before I knew of his arrival.—I congratulate America on your election. There has been no Circumstance, with respect to America, since the times of her revolution, that excited so much general attention and expectation in France, England, Ireland and Scotland,1 as the pending election for president of the United States, nor any of which the event has given more general Joy.

I thank you for the opportunity you give me of returning by the Maryland, but I shall wait the return of the Vessel that brings Mr Livingstone.

With respect to the general State of Politics in Europe, I mean such as are interesting to America, I am at a loss to give any decided opinion. The Coalition of the North, which took place within a few weeks after the publication of the Martime Compact, is, by the untimely death of Paul, in a state of suspence. I do not believe it is abandoned, but it is so far weakened that some of the ports of the North are again open to the english Commerce, as are also the Elbe and the Weser; and Hambourg is evacuated by the Danes. That the business is not yet settled you will see by Nelson’s letter and the accounts from Stockholm which I enclose. The English Government has sent Lord St Helens to Petersbourg but we have no News of the event of his Embassy.

Nothing from Egypt since the Battle of the 21 March. The event, however, admits of calculation, which is, that if the English get footing enough in that Country to hold themselves there, they will finally succeed; because they can be reinforced and the french cannot. It is said that England has made proposals of an Armistice to france, one of the conditions of which is that both parties shall evacuate Egypt. I know not the fact but it has the appearance of probability. It comes from Marbois.

The only relief that france could have given to Egypt, and the only, or most effectual, aid she could have given to the coalition of the North (since she has no operative Navy,) would have been to have kept a strong fleet of Gun-boats on the belgic Coast, to be rowed by oars, and capable of transporting an hundred thousand Men over to the English Coast on the North Sea. Had this been done, England could not have left her coast unguarded in the Manner she has done to make the Expedition to the Baltic and to Egypt; and if she had done it, the descent could have been made without scarcely any risk. I believe the Govermt. begins now to see it, and talk of doing it, but it ought to have been done a year ago. It was the point I endeavoured to press the Most in my Memoire to Bonaparte of which you have a copy.

That Merchand Vessels under Convoy shall not be Visited will answer very well for the powers of the North, because as those Vessels must all pass the Sound they can take a Convoy from thence and sail in fleets; but it does not answer for America whose Vessels start singly from different points of a long line of Coast. It was this that made me throw out the Idea, in the Maritime Compact (without hinting at the Circumstance that suggested it) that the flag of each Nation ought to be regarded as its convoy, and that no Vessel should hoist any other flag than its own.

The treaty is not yet ratified. Murray has been here about ten days, and had not seen the french Commissioners two days ago. Mr Dawson intended going round among them to learn all he could before he sent off the Vessel. Murray, as I understand, for I do not know him, is more a Man of etiquette than of business; and if there is any intention here to delay the ratification his standing upon disputable ceremonies gives opportunities to that delay.

I will suggest a thought to you, for which I have no other foundation than what arises in my own mind, which is, that the treaty was formed under one state of Circumstances and comes back for ratification under another state of Circumstances. When it was formed the powers of the North were uniting in coalition to establish the principle generally and perpetually that free ships make free goods, and the treaty with America was formed upon that ground; but the Coalition of the North being in a great Measure weakened, and the event of the dispute between them and England not yet known, I am inclined to suspect that france is waiting to know that event before she ratifies a treaty that will otherwise operate against herself; for if England cannot be brought to agree that the Neutral powers shall carry for france, I see not how france can agree they shall carry for England.

As to the explanation put upon this Article by Jay and Pickering, that it refers to different wars in which one party being Neutral is to carry for an Enemy in one war, and the other party when Neutral to carry for an Enemy in another War, it appears to me altogether a Sophism. It never could be the intention of it as a principle. Instead of such a treaty being a treaty of Amity and Commerce, it is a treaty of reciprocal injuries. It is like saying you shall break my head this time by aiding my Enemy, and I will break your head next time by aiding your Enemy; besides which, it is repugnant to every sentiment of human wisdom human cunning, and human selfishness, to make such a contract. There is neither Nation nor Individual that will voluntarily consent to sustain a present Injury upon the distant prospect of an uncertain good: and even that good, if it were to arrive, would be but a bare equivalent for the injury; whereas it ought to be the double of it upon the score of credit, and the uncertainty of repayment. It is better that such an Article should not be inserted in a treaty than that such an unprincipled explanation, and which in its operation must lead to contention, should be put upon it.

You will observe that in the beginning of the preceding paragraph I have said that when the treaty was formed the powers of the North were uniting in Coalition to establish the principle generally and perpetually that free Ships make free goods. The Senate has limited the duration of the Treaty to eight years, and consequently upon the explanation which the Government gave to the same Article in the former treaty with france (see Pickerings long letter to Mr Monroe) this Article in the present Treaty can have no reciprocity. It is limited in its operation to the present War, and the benefit of it is to England. The Article as containing a principle should have been exempt from the limitation, or had some condition annexed to it that preserved the principle. The Senate by its contrivances has furnished france with the opportunity of non-ratification, in Case she finds, by the change of Circumstances that the treaty is to her injury.

As these Ideas arise out of Circumstances which by my being upon the Spot, I become acquainted with before they can be known in America, I request you to accept them on that ground.

Should the Treaty be ratified would it not afford a good opportunity (supposing the war to continue) to state to England, that as America, since her treaty with England, had formed a Treaty with her Enemy which stipulated for the right of carrying English property unmolested by that Enemy, it was become necessary to make a new arrangement with England as an equivalent for the advantages England derives in consequence of that Treaty. I throw this out for your private reflection. Should you see it in this light, and commission it to be done,2 no person would be more proper than Mr Livingstone, and the more so, as all the knowlege necessary to the execution of it would rest within himself, and thereby prevent any Confusion that might otherwise arise as was the case with Jay’s treaty. Besides which it is prudent to lessen the expence of European Missions, and to condense two or three into one.

As the unsettled State in which European politics now are will be the State in which they will appear to you when you receive this letter, I suggest to you whether it would not be best to order the Vessel, that is to bring out Mr Livingstone, to L’Orient, Nantz, or Bourdeaux, rather than to come up the Channel. The Maryland has been visited in entering into Havre, and it is best to avoid an Affront when it can be done consistently especially in the present unsettled State of things.

The Spaniards have entered Portugal and taken some forts and have orders to march on, unless Portugal, as a preliminary to an Armistice, shut her ports against the English.

The french have again taken possession of several forts on the right Shore of the Rhine, but I believe this measure is in concert with Austria to force the States of the Empire to finish the endemnifications. However, this unsettled State of things makes some impression here, and the funds have considerably fallen: England begins to be awake to the apprehensions of a descent. If it be true that she has made propositions for an Armistice, this may be one of the causes of it.

I now leave the embarrassed field of politics, for which if I have any talent, I have no liking, and come to the quiet scene of civil life.

You may recollect that I mentioned to you at Paris an Idea I had of constructing Carriage wheels by concentric circles in preference to the present method in which the pieces that compose the rim, or wheel, are cut cross the grain. This last winter I made three Models. Two of them eighteen Inches diameter the other two foot. I have succeeded both as to Solidity and beauty beyond my expectation. They are equally as firm as if they were a Natural production and handsomer than any Wheels ever yet made. But the machinery I invented, and the means I used, to bring them to this perfection I cannot describe in a letter. Had matters gone on in America in the same bad manner they went on for several years past my intention was to have taken out a patent for them in france and made a business of it. I shall bring them with me to America and also my bridges and make a business of them there, for it is best for me to be on the broad floor of the world and follow my own Ideas. what I mention to you concerning the wheels I repose with yourself only till I have the happiness to meet you.

I am with wishes for your happiness and that of our Country Your much obliged friend

Thomas Paine

RC (DLC); 9 June 1801 was 20 Prairial Year 9, so Paine mistook either the English or the French date; endorsed by TJ as received 3 Sep. 1801 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures, not found, probably included recent issues from the Moniteur or another publication reporting Lord Nelson’s threats against Sweden (see below).

Friendly letter by Mr. Dawson: TJ to Paine, 18 Mch. 1801.

Coalition of the north: by formal agreements in December 1800, Paul I of Russia had allied his country with Denmark, Sweden, and Prussia to form the league of armed neutrality. Paine’s pamphlet Maritime Compact—one of a group of essays published in the United States under the title Compact Maritime—was published in France at the beginning of October. In the conflict between Great Britain and the alliance of neutral powers, the elbe River, on which Hamburg was located, and the Weser, which flowed past Bremen to enter the North Sea, were closed to the British. Danish troops occupied Hamburg, and Prussian soldiers moved into Bremen and the electorate of Hanover. After the British attack at Copenhagen early in April forced Denmark to agree to an armistice, the Danish commander at Hamburg agreed on 7 May to reopen the Elbe to all trade, including that of Britain. On 23 May the Danes left the city. Prussia reopened its rivers to the British and withdrew its troops from the lower Weser (Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel, 12, 29 Floréal, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 12, 16, 17 Prairial Year 9 [2, 19, 22, 23, 25, 28, 29 May, 1, 5, 6 June 1801]; Vol. 32:191–2n, 202, 204n, 296–7n; William Short to TJ, 19 Apr. 1801).

Following the negotiation of the armistice at Copenhagen, the British fleet moved into the Baltic to prevent a rendezvous of the Swedish and Russian navies. Lord Nelson’s communication to the naval commander at Karlskrona warned that the British had no orders to prohibit them from attacking the Swedish squadron that was anchored there if it should put out to sea. Sweden hurried to defend its coast as Nelson’s threat was passed along to the government at Stockholm (Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel, 17–20 Prairial Year 9 [6–9 June 1801]; Ole Feldbæk, The Battle of Copenhagen 1801: Nelson and the Danes, trans. Tony Wedgwood [Barnsley, Eng., 2002], 226–8).

In April 1801, the British government appointed Alleyne Fitzherbert, Baron St. Helens, who some years earlier had represented Britain at St. Petersburg, to negotiate an agreement with Emperor Alexander of Russia, Paul’s son and successor. On 17 June the Russians agreed to a maritime convention with Britain that undermined the league of armed neutrality by abandoning the principle that free ships make free goods, restricting protection of neutral convoys, and inviting Denmark and Sweden to reach similar agreements with the British (Madison, Papers, Sec. of State Ser. description begins J. C. A. Stagg, ed., The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, Charlottesville, 1986–, 8 vols. description ends , 1:186, 134, 410–12; DNB description begins H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, In Association with The British Academy, From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000, Oxford, 2004, 60 vols. description ends ).

The battle in Egypt on 21 Mch. was a British victory over the French at Alexandria (Digby G. Smith, The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book [London, 1998], 195–6).

On 1 Oct. 1800, Paine sent TJ a copy of his memorandum to bonaparte that suggested using small gunboats, launched from the Low Countries, to attack Britain (Vol. 32:188, 191n).

The sound was the strait at the mouth of the Baltic Sea (Vol. 32:192n).

William Vans Murray arrived in Paris from The Hague on 25 May. He called on Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, on 1 June, and on the 6th delivered his credentials at a public audience with Bonaparte. To discuss alterations to the Convention of 1800, the first consul named the same french commissioners who had negotiated the original convention: Joseph Bonaparte as president of the commission, joined by Charles Pierre Claret Fleurieu and Pierre Louis Roederer (Madison, Papers, Sec. of State Ser. description begins J. C. A. Stagg, ed., The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, Charlottesville, 1986–, 8 vols. description ends , 1:253, 281; Vol. 31:562n).

The Jay Treaty did not embody the doctrine that free ships make free goods, which the British government believed would give France the means to sustain itself during war. The Convention of 1800, the conventions that formed the league of armed neutrality, and the United States’ Former treaty with france, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1778, all incorporated the principle. On 12 Sep. 1795, Timothy Pickering, as acting secretary of state, wrote to James Monroe, who was minister to France, about Article 18 of the Jay Treaty and the necessity of making a partial accommodation to Britain’s insistence that food provisions be classified as contraband. Pickering noted that some people “have said that, while France, with whom we have a treaty of amity and commerce, was at war, we ought not to form with her enemy a similar treaty, by which our situation would be changed.” He continued: “But where is the principle, to support this rule? and where will it find any limits? We have treaties with many other Powers, one or the other of whom may be always at war: are we never then to make another treaty?” (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Foreign Relations, 1:598; Jerald A. Combs, The Jay Treaty: Political Battleground of the Founding Fathers [Berkeley, 1970], 139, 153, 156–7; Miller, Treaties description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America, Washington, D.C., 1931–48, 8 vols. description ends , 2:20–1, 258–9; Joseph Barnes to TJ, 10 Apr. 1801).

A British frigate was stationed not far from Le Havre. The Maryland, carrying John Dawson and the Convention of 1800, arrived on 9 May and entered the harbor the next day (Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel, 24 Floréal, 5 Prairial Year 9 [14, 25 May 1801]).

Portugal: Spanish armies entered Portuguese territory on 20 May and began to capture forts and towns. A reserve force of French troops did not participate in the invasion. Portugal quickly yielded, agreeing by treaties with Spain and France to close its ports to the British and pay indemnities to the Spanish. Napoleon Bonaparte was represented in the negotiations by his brother Lucien (H. V. Livermore, A History of Portugal [Cambridge, 1947], 390–1; Parry, Consolidated Treaty Series description begins Clive Parry, ed., The Consolidated Treaty Series, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., 1969–81, 231 vols. description ends , 56:77–92).

By the Treaty of Lunéville, the Rhine would be the boundary between France and the German states on the eastern, or right, bank of the river. On 19 May 1801, the Moniteur reported that 40,000 French soldiers remained as a corps of observation along the Rhine to guarantee the completion of the terms of the treaty. On 9 June the paper reported that no French troops remained on the right bank (Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel, 29 Floréal, 20 Prairial [19 May, 9 June]; Tulard, Dictionnaire Napoléon description begins Jean Tulard, Dictionnaire Napoléon, Paris, 1987 description ends , 1460).

Carriage wheels: in Paris, TJ took a particular interest in the subject of wheel construction in January 1787, when he enlisted the aid of St. John de Crèvecoeur to refute a published statement that credited an Englishman with the invention of a method of building a wheel by bending wood into a circle (Vol. 11:43–5).

For Paine’s design of iron bridges, see Vol. 32:189–90, 192–3n.

1Preceding six words interlined.

2Preceding clause interlined.

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